Announcement: Week Three of February birthday fund-raiser for Behind the Black

Readers!

The third week in my annual birthday fund-raising drive has begun. The generosity of my readers continues to be amazing. At the pace the donations and subscriptions are coming in, this February has a chance of being the most successful campaign ever. Thank you all! I cannot find words to express my gratitude.

As I have noted, I do not post on Facebook or Twitter, and take no advertisements. My only source of income for the website comes from your support.

What this does however is allow me total freedom. When I made my living writing magazine articles, I might get one story idea out of sixty published, mostly because the magazines simply didn’t have room for them all. And the one that was published might take six months to get from idea to publication.

Now, every story I spot, every interesting picture from space I see, every book I write, gets published quickly. This website and the new world of digital publishing has signaled a new burst of freedom for me, and for all writers. No longer are you imprisoned by the rules imposed by others. Your only requirement is to provide good product so as to attract a wide readership.

Fortunately, I appear to be doing that. The website traffic in the past three years has been growing exponentially. So have the donations and subscriptions. If you are one of those readers and have not yet donated, please consider giving your support to my work. You can either give a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, using Paypal, as outlined in the tip jar either in the right column (near the top) or at the bottom of the page (on mobile phones). You can also donate by sending me a check payable to me to the address shown in the tip jar.

And if you want something more substantial to read, you can also buy my books, as noted in the boxes interspersed throughout the webpage. Note that a purchase at the ebookit link will guarantee I get a larger cut and get it sooner.

This announcement will remain at the top of the page for the next two weeks. Scroll down for today’s newest posts.

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NOAA’s aging fleet of sun-observation satellites

In testimony during a Senate hearing on February 12, the head of NOAA’s space weather division admitted that the agency’s ability to monitor the Sun is threatened by its aging fleet of solar satellites, combined with the agency’s slow progress on a large single replacement satellite, presently scheduled for launch in 2024.

NOAA currently uses the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) and NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft to collect solar wind data, and uses the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft to observe the solar corona, using those data to forecast solar storms that can affect satellites and terrestrial infrastructure such as power grids.

However, SOHO, launched in December 1995, is well past its design life. In addition, DSCOVR has been offline since June 2019 because of technical problems, forcing NOAA to depend solely on ACE, which launched in 1997. [emphasis mine]

NOAA has been trying, and failing, to build a replacement for ACE for more than a decade. Worse, the agency’s inability to deal with these issues was further revealed by this quote:

Congress has pushed to speed up work on that [replacement] mission, despite NOAA’s assurances about the availability of data from other spacecraft. NOAA sought about $25 million for the mission in its fiscal year 2020 budget request, but Congress appropriated $64 million. NOAA has yet to release its fiscal year 2021 budget request, more than a week after the White House published the overall federal government budget proposal.

Something has been wrong in the management at NOAA now for at least a decade. They can’t seem to get new satellites built, and when they try they can’t seem to do it on schedule and for a reasonable cost. Their weather satellite program has been rife with problems, including cost overruns, schedule delays, and failing satellites.

But why should we be surprised? This kind of mismanagement at the federal government has been par for the course for the past half century.

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Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 
The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

 
The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.
 

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs." --San Antonio Express-News

Harvard professor arrested for his work with China

Charles Lieber, the chairman of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, has been arrested by the federal government for lying about the work he has been doing for China.

An affidavit accompanying the criminal complaint in Boston further accuses Lieber of making false statements to the National Institutes of Health—a major funder of his research into nanoscale biological interfaces, such as transistors that can interact with intracellular biological machinery—as well as to Harvard itself, about his connections to [China’s] Thousand Talents program and the Wuhan University of Technology.

The arrest occurred very shortly after a Chinese medical student from Harvard was arrested for trying to smuggle cancer research material from a Harvard-affiliated medical center.

More information here. It appears that Lieber did not tell the truth about how much China was paying him for this work, which by the way was a lot of money, $50K per month plus $150K stipend for living in Wuhan while he helped build them a medical lab.

Hat tip Phill Oltmann.

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Japan to send unmanned probe to Mars’ moon Phobos

The new colonial movement: Japan revealed yesterday that it plans to send unmanned probe to Mars’ moon Phobos, using the basic designs developed for the asteroid mission Hayabusa-2.

Like Hayabusa-2, they will attempt to grab a sample from Phobos, and will launch in September 2024, returning its sample in 2029.

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Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

 
The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.


He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

 
Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit.
 

Maiden flight of China’s Long March 5B rocket targeted for April

The new colonial movement: China is now targeting mid-April for the maiden launch of its Long March 5B rocket, which will place in orbit China’s new manned capsule on its first unmanned demo flight.

The article at the link, from China’s normally reticent state-run press, actually provides a great deal of information. First, it outlines the launch schedule for their space station, using the Long March 5B rocket:

China aims to complete construction of the space station around 2022. According to the CMSA, more than 10 missions are planned in the next three years to complete the construction and master technologies for in-orbit assembly and construction of large complex spacecraft, long-term manned spaceflight in near-Earth space and large-scale space science experiments.

…The space station will be a T shape with the Tianhe core module at the center and a lab capsule on each side. The core module — at 16.6 meters long and 4.2 meters in diameter, with a takeoff weight of 22.5 tonnes — will be the management and control center.

Second, the article confirms that the Long March 5B rocket will be used to launch all of China’s manned missions. This means they are dependent on their biggest and possibly most expensive rocket to make things happen, suggesting that either they will have to go slow or they have made a very big commitment to space. The quote above suggests the latter.

Third, the article reveals that their new manned capsule, which will weigh almost as much as a single station module on either their station or ISS, will be capable of carrying six astronauts, and that the descent module is designed to be reusable.

Finally, they confirm once again that they will also be launching “a large optical telescope” that will fly in formation with their space station. An earlier news article indicated that this telescope would have a mirror 12 meters in diameter, which would be five times bigger than the mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope. That same article however also noted major design issues.

Overall, it appears China is about to step out as a major space power, with capabilities that in many ways will exceed anything from either the U.S. or Russia.

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Astronomers photograph baby stars in Orion

Some of the baby stars surveyed
Click for full image.

Astronomers using two radio telescopes have created multi-wavelength radio images of 300 protoplanetary disks, or proplyds, found in the star forming region in the constellation Orion. The image to the right shows only a small sampling of the proplyds imaged.

“This survey revealed the average mass and size of these very young protoplanetary disks,” said John Tobin of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia, and leader of the survey team. “We can now compare them to older disks that have been studied intensively with [the radio telescope] ALMA as well.”

What Tobin and his team found, is that very young disks can be similar in size, but are on average much more massive than older disks. “When a star grows, it eats away more and more material from the disk. This means that younger disks have a lot more raw material from which planets could form. Possibly bigger planets already start to form around very young stars.”

Of the disks photographed, four appear to be extremely young, probably less than ten thousand years, because of their very blobby and irregular shape.

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Leaving Earth cover

In March I obtained from my former publisher the last 30 copies of the now out-of-print hardback of Leaving Earth. I quickly sold 10, and with only 20 left in stock I am raising the price. To get your own autographed copy of this rare collector's item please send a $75 check (includes $5 shipping) payable to Robert Zimmerman to
 

Behind The Black, c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652
 

I will likely raise the price again when only ten books are left, so buy them now at this price while you still can!


  Also available as an inexpensive ebook!
 

Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel, is now available as an ebook everywhere for only $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

 


Winner of the 2003 Eugene M. Emme Award of the American Astronautical Society.

"Leaving Earth is one of the best and certainly the most comprehensive summary of our drive into space that I have ever read. It will be invaluable to future scholars because it will tell them how the next chapter of human history opened." -- Arthur C. Clarke

SpaceX begins assembling its next Starship test prototype

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has begun the assembly in Boca Chica of its next Starship test prototype, with a targeted launch date in April.

That first test flight is expected to be a 12-mile-high hop, using three Raptor engines.

Do not be surprised if that launch is delays by a few months. At the same time, do not be surprised if it occurs before the summer.

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Russia and China launch satellites

Today both China and Russia successfully placed satellites into orbit. China’s Long March 2D rocket placed four “technology test” satellites into orbit, while Russia used its Soyuz-2 rocket to launch a military communications satellite.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

4 China
3 SpaceX
2 Arianespace (Europe)
2 Russia

The U.S. continues to lead China 6 to 4 in the national rankings.

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Martian wind-swept buried depressions

Wind-swept Martian depressions
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken on January 3, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows three strange teardrop-shaped depressions, clearly wind-swept and partly buried by dust and sand.

The location on Mars of these depressions is in the transition zone between the southern cratered highlands and the northern lowlands. This is also a region dubbed the Medusae Fossae Formation, a region where it appears a great deal of volcanic material was laid down during one or more eruptive events 3 to 3.8 billion years ago.

Whether these depressions were formed during those events is impossible to tell from the available data, especially because the underlying bedrock is buried in dust.

Their shape appears to have been caused as the wind slowly exposed three buried peaks of hard rock. The wind, blowing from the southwest to the northeast, would hit the peaks, producing an downward eddy that would churn out dust from the windward side. The wind and dust would then blow around the peaks, creating the teardrop tail on the leeward side to the northeast.

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MRO undergoing maintenance and software upgrade

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, in space now for fifteen years, will undergo a two week computer software upgrade.

The maintenance work involves updating battery parameters in the spacecraft’s flash memory – a rare step that’s been done only twice before in the orbiter’s 15 years of flight. This special update is necessary because it was recently determined that the battery parameters in flash were out of date and if used, would not charge MRO’s batteries to the desired levels.

In addition to the battery parameters, engineers will use this opportunity to update planetary position tables that also reside in flash. The spacecraft will go into a precautionary standby mode, called safe mode, three times over the course of the update. It will also swap from its primary computer, called its Side-A computer, to its redundant one, called Side-B.

During these two weeks the spacecraft will suspend its science and communications operations.

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Ariane 5 successfully launches two satellites

Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket today successfully launched a Japanese communications satellite and a South Korean landsat satellite.

The standings in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
3 SpaceX
2 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. continues to lead China 6 to 3 in the national rankings.

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Juno’s first measurement of water content on Jupiter

The uncertainty of science: Scientists today released their first measurements from Juno of the amount of water found in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

The Juno science team used data collected during Juno’s first eight science flybys of Jupiter to generate the findings. They initially concentrated on the equatorial region because the atmosphere there appears more well-mixed, even at depth, than in other regions. From its orbital perch, the radiometer was able to collect data from a far greater depth into Jupiter’s atmosphere than the Galileo probe – 93 miles (150 kilometers), where the pressure reaches about 480 psi (33 bar).

“We found the water in the equator to be greater than what the Galileo probe measured,” said Cheng Li, a Juno scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Because the equatorial region is very unique at Jupiter, we need to compare these results with how much water is in other regions.”

These results remain very preliminary, especially because they have not yet gathered data at higher latitudes. Regardless the amount so far detected, 0.25% of all molecules in Jupiter’s atmosphere. seems remarkably small, suggesting that Jupiter has relatively little hydrogen or oxygen in its atmosphere.

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SpaceX signs deal to fly four tourists on Dragon

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has signed a deal with the space tourism company Space Adventures to fly four tourists on a single crew Dragon flight.

The private spaceflight company founded by billionaire Elon Musk has signed an agreement with the U.S. space tourism company Space Adventures to launch up to four passengers on an orbital trip aboard a Crew Dragon space capsule. The mission would last up to five days and could launch as early as late 2021, Space Adventures representatives told Space.com.

The trip will not go to ISS, but remain free-flying in orbit.

Essentially, Space Adventures, which flew all its previous space tourists on Russian Soyuz capsules and has two more such flights scheduled in 2021 to ISS, is now adding the American company SpaceX to its staple. This gives them two places they can buy flights, which gives them some bargaining room to get prices down.

This is exactly what I hoped would happen if NASA stopped building spacecraft and instead bought its rides from privately built and owned capsules. Owned by SpaceX and built for profit, crew Dragon is not limited to only serving NASA’s needs. They can sell it to others to make more money. Here they are doing so.

I also would not be surprised if SpaceX reuses the Dragon capsules used on NASA flights for these tourist flights. NASA doesn’t want reused capsules, yet, so SpaceX will be accumulating once-used capsules capable of flying again. I bet they will use them here.

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First Solar Orbiter instrument activated

Engineers have confirmed that the first Solar Orbiter instrument that they have activated is working and in good health.

“Until the end of April, we will be gradually turning on the in-situ instruments and checking whether they are working correctly,” says Yannis Zouganelis, ESA’s deputy project scientist for the Solar Orbiter mission. “By the end of April, we will have a better idea of the performance of the instruments and hopefully start collecting first scientific data in mid-May.”

Through November 2021 the spacecraft will make fly-bys of the Sun, Venus, and Earth to get it into its prime orbit, which will pass Venus regularly to further raise its inclination so that eventually it will be as high as 33 degrees, allowing it to better see the Sun’s poles.

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China’s candidate landing site on Mars

One candidate landing site for China's first Mars lander/rover
Click for full image.

The image to the right, reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and provides a close-up of the relative smooth terrain found in the region on Mars that the Chinese have said is one of their prime landing sites for their 2020 Mars rover and lander. According to planetary scientist Alfred McEwen of the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory in Arizona,

There was a presentation at the European planetary & science conference in Geneva last fall, and a Chinese scientist gave an update on their plans and showed this area with the lat-long coordinates. That’s what I’m going on.

McEwen also admits that “there might have been a change since then. I’m not in loop.” No one outside China really is, as that government remains quite opaque on these matters. They will likely only reveal their final landing site choice as we get closer to launch.

Overview

This location, on the northern lowlands plains of Utopia Planitia, makes great sense however for a first attempt by anyone to soft land on Mars. In fact, in 1976 these plains were the same location that NASA chose for Viking 2, for the same reasons. (The Viking 2 landing site was to the northeast of the Chinese site, just beyond the right edge of the overview map) While there are plenty of craters and rough features, compared to most of Mars’s surface, Utopia could be considered as smooth as a bowling ball.

Even so, a look at the full image shows that there are numerous features nearby that would be a threat for any robotic lander. McEwen notes,
» Read more

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Chicago demonstrates the abject failure of Democratic Party policies

Two stories in the past week illustrate the routine failure of the urban political policies in cities nationwide that have been traditionally controlled by Democrats:

The first story proves the absurdity of gun control laws. Chicago, like most cities and states controlled by Democrats, has some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation. And Chicago, like most cities and states controlled by Democrats, is also home to one of the highest crime rates, using guns, in the nation. Routinely there are more people shot per week with in Chicago then in any hot spot in the Middle East.

This particular story further demonstrates how pointless those laws are in keeping guns from both criminals and even ordinary citizens. It not only describes the premeditated use of guns by young adults against each other, it documents two examples where children accidently shot a playmate because they were playing with guns that happened to be in their homes.

If those gun control laws had done what the Democrats had promised, those children would not have had those guns available to them. But they did, because first, criminals did not obey the laws and are thus very well armed in Chicago, and second, to defend themselves against these armed criminals Chicago citizens are forced to get guns illegally themselves. Instead of reducing access to guns, the gun control laws appear to have increased it. Worse, because those guns are illegal, proper training in gun use and safety is inaccessible. The result are stories like this.

The second story describes the consequences of these bad Democratic Party policies. Chicago’s population has now shrunk four years in a row, with many of those fleeing coming from the very black community that the Democrats supposedly care so much about. The reasons?

They have been driven out of the city by segregation, gun violence, discriminatory policing, racial disparities in employment, the uneven quality of public schools and frustration at life in neighborhoods whose once-humming commercial districts have gone quiet, as well as more universal urban complaints like rising rents and taxes.

Note that the blame for most of these failures (gun control, corrupt police, bad schools, rising taxes) can be traced directly to the polices of the Democratic Party that has run Chicago unopposed for almost a century, the same party that for decades these same blacks have voted for repeatedly.

As they say, you get the government you deserve. I just hope the blacks remaining in Chicago as well as the blacks who have fled will reconsider their blind loyalty to the Democratic Party. As Donald Trump told them directly during the 2016 campaign, “What have you got to lose?”.

So far, less than nothing, based on the disasters that the Democrats have brought upon them. I pray they will finally realize this.

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Jeff Bezos to spend $10 billion on “climate change”

Jeff Bezos yesterday announced that he plans to spend $10 billion of his own money on “climate change,” awarding grants to “scientists, activists and nonprofits.”

“I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change,” Bezos said in the post.

I wonder if has any idea what he means by “climate change.” From this and other quotes, I would guess he does not. Instead, it appears his knowledge of the climate field is similar to most leftist politicians and activists, superficial and based on slogans and soundbite claims.

Meanwhile, this story suggests that a good portion of the $4.6 billion he has gotten by cashing out his Amazon stock in the past few years will go to this initiative, rather than his space company Blue Origin.

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Blue Origin opens rocket engine factory

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin yesterday cut the ribbon on its main rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama, while also announcing that production of their BE-4 engine for both ULA’s new Vulcan rocket and their own New Glenn rocket will begin in a few months.

In the meantime, made-in-Kent engines are being tested at Blue Origin’s West Texas site. Smith said two flight readiness engines will be delivered in May to United Launch Alliance. They’ll be used for integrated tests of ULA’s Vulcan first-stage booster, which is taking shape not far from Huntsville in Decatur, Ala.

This is excellent news. For the past year and a half the company has released little information about their progress with the BE-4 engine, suggesting that they might be experiencing issues. Yesterday’s news bursts that pessimistic balloon, indicating that both the Vulcan and New Glenn rockets will be flying, maybe as soon as next year.

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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 awake for their 15th lunar day

The new colonial movement: Engineers have reactivated China’s Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover for their 15th lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

As usual, the story in China’s state-run press reveals little. This time however it does mention that Yutu-2 will continue traveling to the west, first to the northwest and then to the southwest.

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America’s modern rocket industry illustrates the power of freedom

SpaceX's first Starship prototype
SpaceX’s first Starship prototype

Capitalism in space: Today’s launch by SpaceX of another sixty Starlink satellites in its planned constellation of thousands of satellites, designed to provide worldwide internet access, was significant in a way that is actually not obvious at first glance. To understand its significance, it is necessary to look at the launch in a wider context.

Below is the list of launches that have so far occurred in 2020. I keep track of this, and post an update here on Behind the Black after each new launch:

3 China
3 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

Notice anything? While the launches of every other nation in the world are centralized under one rocket company or agency, the United States has many different and independent companies competing for this business. Right now the U.S. has four different companies on this list, with one (SpaceX) now tied after today’s launch with China for the overall lead, and three (Rocket Lab, ULA, and Northrop Grumman) tied with Europe, Russia, and Japan for second place.

Only in America can you have individual private rocket companies competing head-to-head with whole nations, and beating them. (Some might argue that China’s rocket industry is also made up of competing companies, but that is a lie. While those companies might function somewhat independently, they are all under the strict supervision of the central communist government. They are not functioning as free and privately-owned companies.)

Nor is this pattern seen only in the launch market. Among airline companies it has been the norm since the beginnings of cheap passenger flight after World War II. While most other nations have a single national airline (British Airways, Aeroflot, El Al, Air Canada, Korean Air, Saudi Arabian Airlines, to name a few), the U.S. has a plethora of competing independent companies, with many flying many more passengers than these national airlines, sometimes even to their own countries.

How is this possible? Why does the U.S. so often dominate so many industries in this way?
» Read more

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SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites; 1st stage landing fails

Capitalism in space: SpaceX this morning successfully launched sixty more Starlink satellites, raising the number in the constellation to 300.

However, though the launch was successful, the first stage, on its fourth flight, failed to land successfully on the drone ship in the Atlantic. Watching the live stream, it appeared from a whiff of smoke on the edge of the screen that the booster missed the target by only a short distance. This is the first time this has happened since 2015 2018 (correction from reader).

That this first stage landing failure is the news story illustrates how far they have come..

The standings in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
3 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

In the national rankings the U.S. now leads China 6 to 3.

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Successful launch today of Cygnus freighter to ISS

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket today successfully launched it Cygnus unmanned cargo capsule on a supply mission to ISS.

This was Northrop Grumman’s first flight in 2020. The standings in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. now leads China 5 to 3 in the national rankings. The U.S. will likely add to that lead with the planned SpaceX launch of another 60 Starlink satellites Monday.

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Coronavirus update

This article about the coronavirus epidemic (the virus is now officially dubbed Covid-19) focuses initially on how the Chinese are even quarantining bank notes in their effort to stem the disease’s spread.

I instead found this quote farther down the page much more significant:

More than 1,380 people with the virus are now confirmed to have died and more than 64,400 have been infected in at least 28 countries and regions.

The death rate of the disease, even as it has grown, remains about 2%. While tragic, this number suggests this hardly has the makings so far of a worldwide catastrophe. If anything, it appears to be about as deadly as the flu, which isn’t something to take lightly but also does not warrant any need for panic or desperation. The flu in the 2017-2018 season in the U.S. infected an estimated 45 million, killing about 61,000, a far lower death rate but impacting far more people. Like the flu, Covid-19 appears to be more deadly to older patients.

This epidemic needs to be taken seriously, but it so far does not justify any panic.

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